Eating-up Stratford
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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Stratford Chefs School Dinner Series: La Casa de los Sabores

All winter I've been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to attend one of the Stratford Chefs School dinners (or one of the lunches for that matter!). This past week I was finally able to join the ongoing feast that students at Stratford's esteemed chef training institute have been preparing for our community all season as part of their curriculum.  

On Tuesday, my folks were in town for a visit before heading out on their yearly snowbird migration south. To see them off in tropical style, we all headed down to The Old Prune for a world class adventure in culinary education.

The Chefs School is unparalleled in its ability to attract incredible cooking talent from around the world to come and instruct their chefs-in-training in international recipes and techniques. Back in December, Michelin Star Chef Riccardo Camanini mentored the class of 2011 through a stunning series of Italian menus (I was drooling at the pics of the minimalist masterpieces posted on Twitter). The Chef in Residence leading the students last week was Pilar Cabrera Arroyo, owner of La Olla Restaurante in Oaxaca, Mexico. Chef Pilar's five sold-out dinners were particularly special events in Stratford, where we are blessed with so many great restaurants but, alas, if we want anything even resembling Mexican food we're stuck with... Taco Bell?!? Understandably, there was a lot of buzz about Chef Pilar being in town: most people have to fly south to experience real-deal Mexican cuisine, but last week Stratford's food lovers got to taste the authentic flavours of southern Mexico without leaving our snow-covered city.

When we walked into the stylish dining room at The Old Prune we were excited to see some of our friends from the local food community were also in attendance, including the lads from Anything Grows and Tina and Antony from Soiled Reputation. The Manic Organic pointed out that Perth County is actually an amazing location for sourcing-out many of the ingredients that form the backbone of Mexican cuisine, like pork, chicken and corn. He's such a big fan of Mexican cooking he and Tina came out to two of Chef Pilar's student dinners (lucky!).

Our placemats were adorned with an intricate cut-out of the logo for Chef Pilar's own cooking school in Mexico: La Casa de los Sabores (The House of Flavours). The house was indeed full of all sorts of strong, complex and sometimes unexpected flavours as we were presented with a flowing five course menu executed by student chef Simon Briggs. Another student taking his turn at front of  house whet the hungry room's appetite as he announced the theme of the night, which was Mexican street food, "the essence of Mexican lifestyle."

Speaking of unexpected, the night began with a Margarita cocktail (photo above) rimmed with salt mixed with a couple of traditional Oaxacan folk ingredients: dried grasshopper and worm! The, uh, grasshopperiness of the grasshopper really complemented the, um, wormilicious worm. Seriously though: the drink was whimsical, one-of-a-kind and actually quite delicious.

Mexican technique was applied to local Ontario product to great success with the opening dish, Fish Tacos al pastor (photo above). When I spoke to her after, Chef Pilar told me that the traditional type of fish used in this dish is Red Snapper. This version used Pickerel and was accompanied by a bright red (but not-as-hot-as-it-looks) achiote sauce. Hands-down the best thing I've eaten in 2011 (and it's going to be a tough one to beat).

The Mexican flavours continued with a Cream of Poblano Pepper soup accompanied by a basket of zingy chili-dusted popcorn. I loved how the silky texture of the soup juxtaposed with the crunchy fluffiness of the spiced popcorn.

The next dish delivered the heat that Mexican food is so famous for. The Shrimp Skewers with Pico de Gallo Sauce saw two insanely hot peppers parenthesizing an impaled set of roasted  cherry tomatoes, red onion and two perfectly cooked and delicately seasoned shrimp. After eating the shrimp and tomatoes I finally worked up the courage to take a bite of one of the seed-filled chilis... and my bald head turned into a lawn sprinkler. My mom was dabbing my brow like a prizefighter as I gulped down enough water to cool the inferno in my mouth; be I ever so humbled, I was ready for the main course!

The entree (above) was a Steamed Chicken Tamale wrapped in banana leaf and served with a chocolate based black mole (pronounced "mole, eh") sauce originating from Chef Pilar's hometown in Oaxaca.

Finally, dessert was a Mexican cheesecake with an Oaxacan chocolate sauce and a quenelle of passionfruit sorbet (above).

Student Chef Simon Briggs (left), Chef in Residence Pilar Cabrera Arroyo (centre), and Chef Francisco  Alejandri (right, from the soon-to-open Agua Cave restaurant in Toronto's Kensington Market) came out to chat with the tables. We all expressed our appreciation for their fine Mexican menu - gracias!

Good news - although Chef Pilar is now gone, there will be one more opportunity for folks in Stratford to enjoy some authentic Mexican cuisine on February 3, 2011, when Chef Francisco returns to lead the students himself. All this week, the Chefs School is being taught by yet another international talent -  French Chef Alexandre Gauthier. If you haven't been to a Chef School dinner or lunch I highly recommend it - there's good value (wine is included in the set price), the food is superb, and it's all in support of Stratford's own not-for-profit chef training school, which without a doubt is one of the reasons our culinary community is blessed with so much talent.

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